What Makes A Luxury Car?

Porsche Cars North America, Inc.

Simply defined, a luxury item is something that goes beyond the basics. A cheap carry-on roller-bag from the discount store will generally function to carry your clothes from one place to another, but a luxurious suitcase from Louis Vuitton will likely last longer, all while broadcasting that you have the means to buy a more expensive suitcase.

Those who recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might draw a parallel pyramid for automobiles. A basic commuter car would fit the bottom row, lumped in like food, water, and shelter, while a 16-speaker audio system or an autonomous driving mode might linger near the top of the list, much like self-actualization.

Luxury cars are much the same. For most drivers, a basic economy car will do everything a six-figure luxury car will do. The difference is in how each component of the car performs. While a standard car will typically have a reasonably comfortable interior, the best luxury cars will pamper a driver and passengers, isolating them from road imperfections and noise.

All cars will have a competent suspension, keeping the wheels firmly planted to the ground in most driving situations. Luxury sedans will typically have an upgraded suspension that will make bumps and ruts in the road seemingly disappear; they may even have an adjustable suspension on air springs, which will automatically compensate for road conditions.

These luxury features obviously aren’t inexpensive. But they may indeed be worth every penny, if a driver arrives refreshed after a long drive rather than exhausted from the ride.

“Grace, Pace, and Space”

Porsche Cars North America, Inc.

Jaguar once used the tagline “Grace, Pace, and Space” to describe its luxury sedans, which seems to be a detailing of what the luxury car market is all about. Grace, of course, refers to the elegance of arriving in a posh sports sedan. Pace means performance, which the Jaguar sports cars of the time certainly had in spades. Space, of course, means luxury cars had plenty of room for four reasonably-sized humans to stretch out in comfort. Perhaps these Jaguar features define exactly what a luxury sedan is – something royalty might drive, or more likely be driven in.

For some manufacturers, luxury is not only about the car but also the dealership experience. Premium car manufacturers often encourage dealers to build stunning showrooms with comfortable waiting areas. Customer service is part of the high-end dealership experience as well, with free loaner-cars and car washes during service as common amenities.

[Read: Small Cars, Big Luxury]

This premium dealership experience is why Toyota (Lexus), Nissan (Infiniti), and Honda (Acura) started completely new brands for their luxury marques in the late Eighties. Conveniences found in the high-end dealerships weren’t practical in a store that sold high volumes of economy cars. Salespeople and staff at the luxury dealers could focus on providing superlative service to the high-end high-profit customers.

Certainly there are many luxury cars that are, at their core, premium versions of more standard cars. One easy example is the Lexus ES350, which is mechanically identical to – and built on the same assembly line as – the Toyota Camry. While one could certainly load all of the options onto a top-of-the-line Camry, the Lexus gives an owner the opportunity to choose more high-end options beyond what can be fitted to the Toyota. The Lexus has optional real wood trim, opulent leather seats, and a high-end Mark Levinson audio system. You can’t find those in a Toyota

Looking for a Luxury Car on the Cheap?

Audi of America, Inc.

This, conversely, gives bargain hunters an opportunity. If the supple leather and wood trim are not as critical to a particular shopper as a low monthly payment, the savvy shopper might be best served at the Toyota dealership. By knowing that a car of equally high quality to the Lexus is available, it might make sense to go with the more affordable version.

Back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – n–, near the top include esteem and belonging. In automotive terms, many car owners feel the need to maintain a certain status among their friends and acquaintances, and to project that status via their automobile. For some, simply maintaining the status quo among the neighbors isn’t enough – if your neighbor has a Volkswagen Golf for example, the appearance of an Audi A3 (another functionally-similar car) in the driveway can theoretically induce jealousy.

These status battles may seem petty, but they are real to many people. Even in Communist East Germany in the Eighties, where having any car was seen as a luxury, those lucky enough to reach the end of a wait list to buy a Trabant – one of the worst cars ever built, by some estimates – were proud to show off their new car to envious neighbors still waiting. 

Don’t Fall for Manufacturer’s Tricks

Mercedes-Benz USA

Auto manufacturers exploit these perceived needs expertly. Think back to December when car commercials on TV suggested buying a new car for a loved one during the holidays. Did those advertisements ever feature a base-model subcompact car with a big red bow on top being given to a new driver in the household who could certainly benefit from a reliable, efficient car?

No.

Those gift bows were reserved for gleaming luxury cars parked in a snow-covered driveway in an idyllic winter scene, with perfect focus on the luxury marque badge on the grille or trunk. Few people aspire to the basic car, as a luxury car in the driveway reveals a superior status of the driver.

[Read About The Best Used Luxury SUVs]

Consider all this during your next car purchase. There may be petty reasons for a luxury purchase, but there are plenty of interior and exterior features that will make your drive much more pleasant.